A War (Krigen), 2015, Dir: Tobias Lindholm

Murdered children in Afghanistan

Murdered children in Afghanistan

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Even though the invasion and subsequent war in Afghanistan has been a total strategic disaster, now turning into a seemingly never-ending conflict, there hasn’t been a shortage of films, both fictional and documentary, about this foreign involvement. The situation was very different following the US invasion of Vietnam where Hollywood took years to be able to address the shameful defeat of the most powerful nation on Earth. (The trouble is that this preparedness to look at the open wounds doesn’t seem to have led to any significant reluctance to get involved in foreign wars, either on the side of the politicians or the public of the respective countries.) The most recent in this series of films is A War – Krigen, directed by Tobias Lindholm.

One of the possible reasons for this spate of soul-searching is the advance in photographic technology. In the 1970s and 80s it wasn’t easy to make a film without a huge amount of resources. Today films can be, and have been, made on smart phones and light weight, yet high quality digital video cameras. It is from this standpoint that has made ‘A War’, a reasonably low-budget film produced from a relatively small country, possible.

This is a film from the Danish perspective. Previous films have looked at the situation from the viewpoint of the two major players in the debacle, the Americans and the British, so it’s slightly refreshing to see how another, junior partner, in this coalition of hypocrisy and double-talk sees as its role on the world stage.

(Here it should be mentioned that the Afghans themselves are still either the ‘enemy’ or the victims. No one has sought to look at the almost 15-year-old war from the perspective of those who have been on the receiving end of all the billions of pounds worth of bullets, air strikes and missiles. But then we still haven’t seen a film that concentrates on the plight of the Vietnamese in their struggle against American Imperialism.)

Although the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, under the name of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, was supposed to bring a better life to the inhabitants there’s no indication at all that there have been any real positive gains for the local populace. The Taliban haven’t been defeated, far from it. Recent information indicates they seem to be getting more powerful day by day as the ordinary Afghan peasant lives under the oppression and corruption of the ‘democratically elected’ government and its US/UK trained puppet army. So-called ‘collateral damage’ means that innocent people are daily at risk of being killed following their normal routine in order to survive. The cultivation of the heroine poppy has resumed with a vengeance resulting in the reappearance of drug lords, together with the inevitable violence and mayhem following such a trade (which had been virtually eliminated under the Taliban, as recognised by the United Nations only a matter of weeks before the invasion of the country in 2001) and tribal War Lords control huge swathes of the country.

‘A War – Krigen’ takes place in 2003 when it could be argued (at least by the occupying forces, not by me) that there was a chance of changing things for the better, that the armed forces from so many countries, a grand coalition – so as to spread the blame if not the glory – could still say, without a hint of irony, that they were there for the people of Afghanistan. But they were only there if it meant that casualties on the invading forces’ side were at an absolute minimum.

These Danish soldiers whoop and holler at the death of a ‘terrorist’ but go into mental melt down when one of their own is injured – similar scenarios having also been depicted in previous fictional or documentary films about the war. Behind this is the mindset and thinking of the invading powers that because they have ‘right’ on their side they are, or, at least, should be, invincible. They have the technology, the weapons, the protection, the back up (both in terms of military intelligence and medical resources), that they are the ‘good guys’ – so how can they lose?

This has been the thinking of the imperialist countries in all the wars, ‘insurgencies’, ’emergencies’ and uprisings they have been involved in since the end of the Second World War. They have the God-given right to do what they so chose in whatever part of the world they chose to do it and if anyone in those countries opposes their invasion they are immediately branded as being insurgents and terrorists (and other descriptions with negative and racist connotations) so therefore their lives are of no value and expendable. This way of looking at the local population resulted in the countless massacres committed by these forces of ‘democracy and freedom’ that was epitomised by the murderous attack on the Vietnamese villages around My Lai in March 1967.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

Although, I suppose, ever since warfare (even before anyone could enunciate the term, in whatever language) began the aim was to inflict the heaviest casualties on the enemy with the least to yourselves. However, in any conflict it would be ludicrous to expect that you can go up against an enemy and not sustain casualties. Granted the British have not been that good at the useless throwing away of young lives, witness the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ in October 1854 during the Crimean War and the countless examples of huge casualties, with little or no territorial gain, on the Western Front in the War of 1914-19.

But following on from the imperialist arrogance is an idea that war is in some manner ‘safe’. If we are fighting ‘evil’ when right is on our side, together with God, less body bags will be needed. Politicians who start these wars want to perpetuate such a fallacy as it allows them to convince the majority of unthinking people that the costs of war are not that great, that the days of high casualties are a thing of the past.

This led to the crazy and bizarre situation that developed around the returning bodies from recent wars in the Middle East which arrived at the Royal Air Force base at Lyneham in Wiltshire in the South West of the UK. The parading of the coffins through the near-by town of Wootton Bassett, which at first was seen as a ‘proud’ nation honouring those who had died ‘to keep us safe’ became a political and military embarrassment. Making a big show on a few occasions was politically advantageous to the State but when it was a regular event it only went to show that the war wasn’t going the way the aggressors thought it would. One senior military officer even stated that such public displays of ‘grief’ were counter-productive as war will invariably mean death and it was dangerous to the State if death was fetishised.

It is by putting this idea of the welfare of the injured to the fore that leads the Danish officer (who, in normal circumstances, shouldn’t have been on the front line at all anyway) to call in air support to attack and destroy a compound from where he ‘thinks’ the Taliban might be firing. The consequence of this is that a number of civilians, including children, end up being killed or wounded. For this he is recalled to Denmark to face a legal inquiry.

This might be considered a genuine approach to dealing with the reasons for civilian casualties, especially when the issue is seen through the ‘liberal’ eyes of a Scandinavian country – although that liberalism is becoming somewhat tarnished with some of the more draconian laws that have been passed as a response to the increase in the number of migrants arriving in Europe in the last year or so. But by placing the incident in ‘the heat of war’ the commander has a get out, whether he is telling the truth or not.

In the fifteen years of the foreign occupation the majority of the casualties have been civilians and most of them were killed by the occupying forces. The obscene term ‘collateral damage’ (coined by the Americans around 1968, in relation to possible outcomes of a nuclear conflict but then used in their war of aggression against the Vietnamese people) is now so commonly used that people in general don’t seem to baulk at the seriousness of the consequences of military action on the local populace. We can also see the hypocrisy of the US and other ‘western’ countries when a similar situation is indeed a crime when committed by others, e.g., the Russians in Syria in 2016, but is OK if committed by them in any theatre of war. We should also remember that the US refuses to allow any of their personnel to be committed for any sort of war crimes, even when one of their soldiers leaves a base, at night, twice, and goes on a killing spree, randomly murdering people in their beds.

Cinema has rarely dealt with the issue of civilian deaths in the many wars since 1945, after which year civilians were no longer the ‘rear’ but the forefront of any conflict. This was even more so in those situations where the fighters were guerillas who lived amongst and came from the people. Taking Chairman Mao’s dictum that the guerillas should be ‘like fish swimming in water’ of the populace the reactionary forces sought to drain the rivers and lakes. Whereas ‘A War’ fudges this issue of civilian deaths (and gets publicity owing to it being nominated for an Academy Award) a film that addressed the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ‘Good Kill’ (2014), was almost totally ignored.

Being a ‘liberal’ country the case of the civilian deaths is investigated by the Danish military authorities and the commander called back home to face a court of inquiry. An interesting aspect of this inquiry was the depiction of the Danish court process itself, not just for this fictional case but for anyone who has to face ‘justice’ in that country. The informality makes the process much less intimidating than it is in a British or American setting and gives the impression, at least, that the person on trial is innocent until proven guilty. This was even down to using the given name rather than the surname of the accused.

Although the viewer knows that the commander is guilty we have to wait to see if this guilt will be proven in an ‘impartial’ inquiry. Witness after witness gives evidence that seems to place another nail in the commander’s coffin until one witness states, categorically, that he ‘knew’ there was concrete evidence for the commander to call in the air strike, the consequences of which were the civilian deaths. This evidence gets the officer off.

Now this particular development introduces interesting aspects of the military of capitalist and imperialist countries. If we can imagine that this situation is real and were to go into the future following this trial and ask ourselves who would be more trusted by his comrades, those who told the truth or the liar, we would have to say the liar. That’s because the very structure of capitalist armed forces is based upon a small group of people having absolute faith in the idea that those around each individual will be supported, in many ways unquestioningly, by the others in his group.

In the situation presented to us in this film how could anyone have such trust in a person who was prepared to see the conviction of one of their own, albeit a senior officer? The countless cases of those soldiers accused of crimes in the invasions of Middle Eastern countries in the 21st century, with none of them ending up being ‘proven’, is testimony to the closed nature of such groups of killers. It’s exactly the same situation amongst the police where there’s an unwritten code of practice in which the truth is just far too inconvenient.

There is another consequence of these constant invasions and wars and this is the effect that the killing process has on those very well supported, very well supplied and very well armed soldiers. This is demonstrated in a scene early in the film.

A situation arises where one of the members of the patrol is so traumatised by one of his comrades stepping on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that he virtually breaks down and refuses to go on patrol. Being a ‘liberal’ country the Danish commander (who establishes his credentials as caring and concerned about those under his command) allows him to be reassigned to base duties until he can get his act together. Here we are presented with the issue of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Now in 2003 it could have been possible to say that those who were in the armies of the imperialist invaders weren’t aware of the consequences of what they were doing. I say ‘could’ rather than ‘would’ as I would have thought that anyone who is prepared to be taught how to use instruments whose only purpose is to kill should understand that death was going to be the consequence of those instruments being used. The hope is that the deaths would be ‘theirs’ but, from time to time, it could be ‘ours’. So why the surprise? Despite how they might be presented at times in the past armies are killing machines, they are not an arm of the social services.

It’s also important to remember that all the armies from all the countries that have been part of a US led ‘coalition’ are composed of volunteers. They are not conscripts as they were in the wars in Korea or Vietnam. These men and women had, and still do, make a conscious decision to enlist. I don’t know why they are surprised when they are confronted with the realities of war. Are they so stupid that they think the real thing is like the computer games that might have convinced them to join up in the first place? That once someone is killed all they have to do is reboot and they will come alive again?

If that’s valid for 2003 how much more valid is it for 2016? Those who are joining these armies now were only toddlers when these 21st century wars of aggression started and since the ‘war of terrorism without end’ began. If they watch the news and think they want to be like John Wayne (who never fired a bullet against a real enemy and, therefore, never had to face danger himself, unlike many in Hollywood, either the actors or scriptwriters he was party to ostracising at the time of (HUAC) the House Un-American Activities Committee – see the film ‘Trumbo’ for a good take on Wayne’s ‘patriotism’) don’t they also know that PTSD is a part of these wars? So now that issue is becoming a drain of health services, a problem to the societies to which they return yet still not an issue that makes people address the validity of such wars in the first place. And, most importantly of all in this, the mental welfare of the men, women and children who are on the receiving end of all these billions of pounds worth of munitions is not considered at all. The wars nominally being fought for their well-being and future don’t take their well-being and future into account.

Finally, other films addressing the war in Afghanistan have almost exclusively concentrated on the soldiers in the country itself, their home lives only considered as an aside, being part of banter amongst the soldiers, referenced by telephone/Skype conversations with family members or by images of the ‘life they left behind’ on the walls of their barracks. In ‘A War’ not only do we get the court room scenes back in Denmark we also get an indication of the problems that can occur within the family as a consequence of the father being away for such a long time.

But here we have another contradiction. We are talking about 2003, a couple of years after the ‘war on terror’ began. Presumably the wife of the commander married, and had children, with a man who was in the military but then he was only playing at being a soldier, not killing other people and not being put in danger. Things start to fall apart when he is doing the job he signed up for many years before and for which he is being paid. So why this shock when matters develop so that he actually does what he was trained to do? Why are so many parents and families proud of their sons and daughters dressed in their smart uniforms at their coming out parades not aware what they could face in the future? Why is it always someone else’s fault if they should get killed or injured in a foreign country? Why do so many people want to claim victim status? If you make a conscious decision to go to another country and kill its people live (or die) with the consequences.

If Denmark is not exactly an imperialist nation at present it is certainly there to support the interests of the most aggressive and powerful imperialist nation at the moment, that is the USA. NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance) exists to dance to the tune that the US decides to play. Huge resources, from all the countries in the organisation, are directed towards this end. As the grip of capitalism and imperialism weakens the necessity for these national forces to get involved in international conflicts has increased – and this will be even more so in the foreseeable future.

Imperialism appears to be strong because it seems to have the ability to respond in any part of the world with massive amounts of force. But can this really be seen as a success for imperialism? In Afghanistan the US has been involved in the longest war in the country’s history – and it’s not fully disengaged yet. In 2001 GW Bush declared the ‘war on terror’ would go on as long as it takes and in the middle of February 2016 the French Prime Minister said that ‘hyper-terrorism (whatever that might be) is here to stay’. So the imperialist powers have already admitted that all the invasions of the 21st century have not achieved, in any sense whatsoever, the goals they set themselves 15 years ago.

So, as far as imperialism is concerned, we are in a more dangerous situation than the world was at even the height of the ‘Cold War’. The threat of nuclear extinction from the Soviet Union has been replaced by an enemy that hates what the west represents in a way never seen before. In the past those people who had suffered at the hands of rapacious and murderous imperialism, from the Americas through to Africa and on to Asia have, in some ways, ‘forgiven’ the oppressors or, at least, pushed the events of the past to the back of their minds. Not now. Those groups whose foundation goes back to the times of anti-Communism in Afghanistan are not thanking their progenitor. Just the opposite. The child hates the father in a way not before seen in modern times. The chickens have truly come home to roost.

The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010/11 has changed the situation in the countries were it took place not one iota. Whatever the optimism and enthusiasm that existed over that period of time some of the faces at the top might have changed but substantially the situation for the vast majority of the population remains the same. Worse than that, some of those countries which underwent a popular uprising are even more aggressive, both nationally and internationally, as they were prior to 2010, Turkey being a case in point.

It’s true that imperialism has succeeded in destroying those functioning societies that were a potential threat to its interests in the region, in the case of Iraq, Libya and Syria, but at what cost to the people? Those once strong militarily countries whose leaders were from time to time courted by the ‘west’ when it suited, are now in chaos with the consequences beginning to have an effect on Europe as more and more refugees seek sanctuary in a part of the world that caused the problem in the first place.

But the populations of the countries who have gave birth to, then incubated this hatred so that it has grown into a myriad of western value hating groups in an increasing number of countries throughout the world, don’t seem to realise that they are part of the problem themselves. Their acquiescence in the face of the jingoism and sabre rattling of their ‘democratically’ elected governments is forgotten. The ones who are fundamentally the cause of the problem claim victim status. Those killed in acts by these ‘fundamentalist’ groups are described as ‘innocents’ yet those civilians killed in drone attacks, air raids or just because they were in the wrong place at the time of a military operation are dismissed as being merely ‘collateral damage’ and all the resources of the invading forces is put into sanitising and excusing those responsible. The lives of an Afghani or an Iraqi is considered of lower value to that of a European. Is it any wonder that people are angry?

‘A War’ is not, by any means, the best film about the invasion of Afghanistan or any other wars that are taking place at the moment (or even of those to come) but it does offer the opportunity for people to look at their own complicity and hypocrisy if they care to do so. I fear, as has been the case in all the other imperialist attempts to maintain or increase their influence in the past, most people will just hope that the problem will go away. It might have quietened down in the past but the result is unlikely to be the same in the present or the future. One day people are going to have to make a decision to challenge the status quo otherwise this war really will go on forever.

The Railway Man (2013) – dir. Jonathan Teplitzky

British POWs on Burma Railway

British POWs on Burma Railway

The Railway Man concerns a surviving POW of the Japanese who was forced to work on the Burma Railway (of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame) and his post traumatic stress at his treatment, manifesting itself more than 35 years after the event.

As one of the other survivors says ‘war leaves a mess’. A bit of an understatement but obviously true but our realisation of that fact doesn’t make us any less likely, willing or even enthusiastic to send an ever-increasing numbers of men and women into conflict zones.

If the autobiography upon which the film is based, as well as the film itself, was arguing, if nothing else, that ‘war leaves a mess’ then surely we should be doing all we can to prevent such a mess from being created in the first place. This is especially so in a country that has been playing fast and loose with war since the disgrace and national shame of the Malvinas War of 1982.

Since then another Prime Minister, with an equal eye on history, has indulged his fantasy of long-lasting fame and, faced with gutless, opportunist and pusillanimous politicians and a weak population who oppose initially but support when ‘it’s our boys (and girls)’, has taken us along a road of never-ending conflict. When GW declared (probably the only true thing he ever said) that the ‘war against terror’ doesn’t have an end even he, I’m sure, didn’t expect that conflicts would be sprouting throughout the globe like poppies on the pockmarked, once agricultural, areas of Belgium.

So, I suppose, I’m asking what’s the purpose of this film (or any such like), this story of a personal tragedy?

Is it to ‘remind us’ that the British were the ‘good guys’ in the 1939-45 war? Is it to say, in the long-held Hollywood tradition, that the love of a good woman will bring resolution and redemption? Is it to say that revenge isn’t necessary and would probably have an even worse effect on he who perpetrated that revenge (as was the main point of the most recent film about South African apartheid, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)?

Because the whole idea of forgiveness is ludicrous if we allow the circumstances where such acts of barbarity can be committed to exist in the first place.

It’s the same about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In WWI it was described as shell shock and treated as a weakness and very often as an excuse for cowardice. This was the case even in the years following the war when damaged men were seen and written about throughout Western European society (I’ve never read or heard about the effects the war might have made on those soldiers from the British colonies of the time, from India and Africa).

Now it’s a recognised illness and has been (although grudgingly by the state) accepted as a consequence of conflict since the United States invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s. However, in those major wars the majority of the soldiers involved were conscripts, not all, but the majority. For me that paints a different picture. To forcibly take a young man from his home environment, send him to a strange and exotic land where he’s invariably like the proverbial fish out of water, expect him to kill, commit atrocities in the name their particular State, and put his own life on the line it’s not then surprising if some of them go doolally.

However, what I do find difficult to accept is the present tranche of the military that have, are or will be fighting in this never-ending war against terrorism. OK, it might be acceptable for the first to have gone into Afghanistan in 2001 and even some of those who were part of the invasion force in Iraq in 2003 but the ‘War on Terror’ has been going on for near on 13 years now.

As most private soldiers on the front line are in their late teens or early twenties some of those would have been in their first years of primary school when the wars started and when the first casualties of PTSD they would have been in their first years of secondary school. Before they joined up weren’t they aware that ‘war leaves a mess’? Were they so blinded by state propaganda and their bloodless experience of playing video games that wars hurt people? That their friends might not make it back? That innocent men, women and children are often casualties of war? That they might see done, or even do, things they would not have thought themselves capable before leaving home?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have relations of the military killed in these conflicts declaring, proudly, before the press (and in that way justifying the military aspirations of the State) that their son/daughter ‘died doing what they loved’, when what they did was kill people. Psychopaths and serial killers can’t get away with that excuse so why can State sponsored killers? On the other hand some will say that they have been permanently scarred psychologically by their experiences of war. They should have known better BEFORE taking the Queen’s shilling. They should have gone into it with their eyes wide open.

In some respects by their supposed ‘suffering’ they are negating the real horror and suffering of those who were forced, against their will and better judgement or conned into believing in a greater ideal of King and Country and whose mutilated bodies became part of the mud of Flanders fields. The adverts appearing on TV and cinema screens at the moment romanticise the military and have the same effect of deluding the young people who are still lining up to join the army.

One the other things this film sparked off in me was an investigation into the roots of waterboarding. Due to the publicity of its use in the last 13 years or so, primarily against Al-Qaeda suspects but probably against anyone the Americans don’t like, I held the general idea it was a relatively recent innovation in the treatment of people over which you have absolute power. It couldn’t be further from the truth and, if you think about it, the roots had to lie in the past.

Why? Because it’s low tech, cheap and needs only a few items which are always to hand.

It’s use is documented by the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the 15th century, but there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t used long before that. It was used by the Inquisition to extract confessions of consorting, fornicating and generally being a servant of the Devil and, as is the nature of torture where people will say anything to make it stop, thousands admitted to whatever they were being accused. This fact, however, didn’t stop the United States Army from institutionalising this treatment as a form of ‘enhanced interrogation’.

In the Spanish-American War, which started in 1898 and which spread to war over the control of the Philippines, it was a regular form of treatment of prisoners and a sketch of the procedure was even carried on the front page of Life magazine, dated 22nd May 1902 – so no real reason for the Americans to be shocked about its use. There was even an army manual about it.

And the Americans took the practice to those places it sent soldiers during the 20th century. I thought I knew quite a bit about the invasion of Vietnam but I hadn’t come across mention of the practice before. (Notice, in the picture below, the smiles on the faces of the perpetrators.) So waterboarding became torture just for the fun of it more than 40 years ago and continues as such to this day.

Water boarding in Vietnam

Water boarding in Vietnam

One of the ‘niceties’ of waterboarding is it doesn’t actually cause any physical harm. If the body is angled so that the head is lower than the body it’s impossible for a person to drown. The trick is the victim thinks they are. It’s this fine distinction which allows the likes of Donald Rumsfeld to have made typically contradictory statements over the procedure and its effectiveness as a means of gaining information, specifically about the whereabouts and eventual assassination of Osama Bin Ladin.

But it all depends on who is being waterboarded in the first place. The now replaced Republican officials of the Bush-era have been reportedly joking at their parties about all sorts of war crimes. However, in 1947 a Japanese soldier was sentenced to 15 years in gaol for waterboarding a US citizen – I don’t have any more information. The British Army used it against Republicans in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and its inconceivable it wasn’t used against anti-colonial movements in Africa prior to that.

Finally on this matter. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times for his supposed involvement in the September 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. It is reported the US intelligence forces gained 10 pieces of information from Abu Zubaydah, but nothing that was world shattering showing either he knew nothing or he was really tough.

Tougher, it seems, than US Navy Seals. Someone with a sense of humour in the US Defence Department thought it would be good to introduce waterboarding into the training programme. On average the recruits lasted 14 seconds. After a while it was decided this part of the programme was not particularly good for morale.